Plastic drinking straws are losing their pull in the global marketplace, with Baylor University joining a growing number of colleges and communities in limiting their use or banning them altogether.

Aramark, which provides food services for arenas, industrial venues, hospitals and schools, including Baylor, has pledged to phase out single-use disposable plastics globally by 2022. This semester it pulled plastic straws from routine use in cafeterias operating in Baylor’s four residence halls.

A student wanting a plastic straw must request one, and they primarily are available for take-out orders, said Smith Getterman, Baylor’s director of sustainability and special projects.

Putting the squeeze on plastic straws represents Baylor’s latest nod to conservation and recycling, efforts that prompted the Sierra Club’s Sierra Magazine to include Baylor on its “Cool Schools” list, according to a Baylor press release. Factors considered for the list include electricity use, water management and the source of cafeteria food, according to the press release.

Getterman said he approached Aramark dining services director Brett Perlowski about student interest in eliminating plastic drinking straws, which are not biodegradable and can languish in landfills and waterways.

“Brett told me discussions already had begun at the corporate level, and we could get in on the ground floor,” Getterman said. “That’s when Aramark and Baylor’s dining services began their partnership on this particular issue.”

Getterman said his office and Aramark responded to activism.

“I spoke last spring in chapel, and several students approached me about the matter, about some of their own research,” Getterman said. “I have a sustainability student advisory board that features students from a cross-section of majors, including history, business and environmental science. This generation is very aware of environmental issues, who share the Christian conviction that we need to be good neighbors within our community.”

Jessica Howard, 20, an accounting student from Dallas serving on the sustainability board, said members frequently discussed going strawless.

“We’ve not received any negative feedback, which is good,” Howard said. “I don’t foresee problems as the policy is integrated around campus. Most students I’ve spoken with say if a big company like Starbucks can take this step, they don’t see anything wrong with Baylor doing the same.”

Starbucks, the coffee giant, announced July 9 it was discontinuing single-use straws at all its locations, and hoped to phase out all straws by 2020.

Meanwhile, Seattle, Washington, the corporate home of Starbucks, has banned all plastic utensils, including straws, from most drinking and dining establishments. San Francisco responded by passing its own ban on plastic straws, effective in July 2019, according to Business Insider magazine.

In the corporate world, Hyatt Hotels and Marriott have vowed to part with plastic utensils, and McDonald’s will eliminate plastic straws in some European markets, Fortune magazine’s online edition reported.

Euromonitor International, a London-based firm specializing in market analysis, reported that plastic consumption worldwide totaled 300 million metric tons in 2015, an amount equal to 88 pounds per year for each of the world’s 7.6 billion humans. And the industry continues to grow.

So there is debate over whether eliminating plastic straws contributes to the war on waste, or serves only as a feel-good approach.

“So many things are made of plastic, this will not fix the problem, but it may make a dent,” said Doug Nesmith, laboratory coordinator in Baylor’s environmental sciences department. “More important, it may serve to teach us we don’t need plastic. We can use reusable sources: glass, paper, stainless steel, bamboo. We need a cup to drink, but we may not need a plastic straw.”

Baylor recycle

A Baylor student takes a drink, without a straw, as she sits with a group in Penland Hall’s cafeteria. The school is working with its food service provider, Aramark, to phase out plastic straws.

Aramark’s new policy would remove almost 100 million plastic straws from circulation worldwide, according to a press release from the company that serves almost 2 billion meals daily in 19 countries. The company, in announcing its changes, said it also will reduce its use of single-use bags, forks and knives.

Perlowski, the Aramark representative at Baylor, said working with the school to reduce reliance on plastic is part of a broader effort.

“Years ago we became a non-Styrofoam campus, moving to all biodegradable containers in the residential dining locations,” Perlowski said. “This change was not cost neutral, so we had to come up with an effective process.”

He said Aramark has also refined its approach to food preparation, ensuring that students have options without waste. It calculated costs related to hauling materials to the landfill with the goal of reducing its environmental impact.

“We do food rescue with our ‘Campus Kitchen,’ and from a facilities standpoint, we can activate tap water to create an all-purpose cleaner, with no residual smell or chemicals,” he said. “We have a fairly large energy initiative to gear down energy use when possible. It involves the use of energy efficient appliances and lighting, changing the behavior of staff and faculty, talking with students and sponsoring energy challenges between dorms.”

The press release announcing Baylor’s inclusion in the “Cool Schools” list states its Campus Kitchen organization recovered almost 16,000 pounds of unused food from campus dining halls and from Panera Bread’s Day-End Dough-Nation Program during the past year. The food was donated to the Salvation Army Men’s Center and the local Caritas food bank, according to the press release.

Baylor also has increased its use of locally-produced foods in dining halls, reduced greenhouse emissions and water use, and increased its “waste diversion” by 27 percent since 2010, according to the press release.

“When we give serious consideration to caring for God’s creation and what that looks like for our community, we know that curtailing plastic straw use on campus will have a positive impact, especially on Waco Creek and the Brazos River, which run through campus and are seen by thousands of students, alumni and visitors each week,” Getterman wrote in the “Cool Schools” press release. Baylor is among 11 universities in Texas and 268 four-year colleges and universities nationwide to receive the honor.

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